The vibe at the French Broad Brewery is “work in progress,” what with the bags of barley stacked behind what passes for a stage, the serve-yourself-pretzels and giant brewing vats standing sentry.
But “work in progress” is not a bad thing. You’ll find some of Asheville’s finest craft brews at French Broad, and the general disorder feels more charming than anything. It’s a lived-in space. You’re at home when you’re there.
The same can be said for Johnson’s Crossroad. With two new band members joining in the last six months or so, it’s clear that the band is still polishing away the rough edges on its original material, songs dominated by themes of loss and life’s struggles. Keith Minguez even says so.
“We’re practicing our asses off,” Minguez, the band’s stellar mandolin player, tells me in an interview following a recent show at French Broad. “We have four guys who are hungry and want to play.”
Despite the work ahead, the band immediately conjures up homey mountain music and an intimate connection with listeners. Minguez and Paul Johnson, the band’s gravel-voiced lead vocalist and guitarist, formed the band after meeting at West Virginia University some 10 years ago. They started out calling their traditional music “West Virginia bent acoustic country,” but dropped the “West Virginia” when they moved to Asheville in search of travel-ready musicians prepared to dedicate themselves to a band intent on building.
They picked up bassist Justin Eisenman, whom Minguez says may be the best picker in the group. And about six months ago, they added Moses Atwood, one of Asheville’s hottest talents, who can pick, sing and write songs. For Johnson’s Crossroad, Atwood plays a dobro and might just be the final ingredient for one really sweet musical brew.
The band has an easy feel about them. There’s no push, no stress. Band members breeze through the strains of old country and bluegrass, punctuated by Johnson’s distinctively gruff voice. The music is so comfortable, in fact, that it’s easy to forget one of the most frustrating issues with French Broad as a listening room – the fact that a skinny ledge runs right across the front of the stage, inviting listeners to set down their beer and belly right up to the band. As listeners sit and stand right on the front row, it’s impossible to get a clear view of the action.
But when you’ve got captivating mountain music that simply whisks you away, it doesn’t matter much. Singing tunes called “Lonesome Blues” and “Waiting on the Judgement Day,” and crooning lyrics like “Darlin’, I blame all my drinking on you,” the music of Johnson’s Crossroad tempts you to simply sit back and enjoy.
None of the folks I was sitting with during the show seemed to mind, either. A family of three—a mom, her daughter and her son-in-law—drove from upstate South Carolina the night of the show just to see Johnson’s Crossroad, a band they’d heard once before. Meeting up with three friends from south Asheville, the fans soaked up every note (and more than a few beers).
Minguez says the band “is just trying to figure out a way to describe what you hear in a living room.” That’s the speed and feel of this band, a work in progress.
And that’s not a bad thing at all.
For upcoming shows, check out www.myspace.com/johnsonscrossroad.